By Heather Larson Poyner firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1967 the American Medical Association first formally recognized alcohol abuse — now referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder — as a disease. Fifty-one years later, it continues to challenge the lives of more than 15 million Americans and their families.
The problem lies in what addiction experts call our “drinking culture.”
Many can’t “see” AUD as a disease because of a pervasive drinking culture in which alcohol is acceptable at every occasion, even at birthday parties for children, notes Guida Brown, executive director of the Hope Council for Alcohol and Other Drugs.
“The problem is that it’s legal and readily available; it’s an insidious problem, it sort of creeps up on you,” Brown said.
And the more acceptable it is, the harder it is to look at over-drinking as a disease that should be treated, Brown said. “More than 53 percent of Americans need to recognize that alcohol addiction is a disease, not a choice.”
“We’re not doing enough to help people make that cultural shift,” Brown said.
Others in the recovery community agree.
“The antidote to any disease is to communicate and acknowledge that something is an issue,” agrees Scott Carney, a Kenosha resident in long-term AUD recovery.
“We should not sweep the issue under the carpet” and need to “come out” about alcohol abuse, he said.
“People who are addicted don’t know they have a disease, and society is failing each one of them,” Brown said.
Until fairly recently, alcoholism treatment was limited to designated floors of hospitals or “intensive outpatient treatment” aimed at detoxing a person from the alcohol in his or her system.
It has been found however, that detox is not the same as treatment, Brown said. “Treatment is long-term; we need to change the chemistry of the brain. It’s not about just ‘fixing it,’ it’s about ‘making the changes.’ “
Effective addiction programs include detoxing the person from the substance and, similarly to other diseases, providing long-term after care support, say Carney and Brown.
More could be helped by recognizing alcoholism as a disease, they said.
Circling back to the disease model Carney said, “If you had cancer, then radiation would be the stabilizing treatment and chemo would be after-care.”
But unlike a treated physical disease like cancer, a person suffering addiction has to want to get better for treatment to become recovery. This is where long-term recovery programs come into play.
“Good treatment is about teaching people to stay away from minefields (of old habits) and understanding that alcohol addiction is a progressive, lethal disease,” Brown said.
Optimally, this treatment “helps people figure out how to fit into their world,” Brown said. “They have to believe that what they’re going into is better than what they are leaving.”